Musicals aren’t my first choice for entertainment. I’m more agnostic than atheist with this genre, however. I’ve enjoyed sing-along performances of My Fair Lady played at the Retrodome, now 3Below, here in San Jose, California. During my 1989 three-month tour of Europe, I spent a week in Salzburg, Austria, where I stayed at a hostel which offered daily Sound of Music tours and then off to their pub for viewings along with wienerschnitzel served fresh and hot. Finally, I adore An American in Paris. We have that final sequence where Gene Kelly dances with Leslie Caron to Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” and throughout the film here comes that Dufy, Rousseau, Utrillo, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Renoir inspired scenery. What’s not to love? Still, musicals aren’t my go-to when choosing cinema or stage performances.
But here I am, writing about Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979), the version starring George Hearn and Angela Lansbury (1982). My friend Christopher J. Garcia touts it as the perfect entry into Sondheim’s world. “It’s got many genres happening at once,” he claims. “And it’s kind of horror. But go Lansbury and Hearn, not Bonham-Carter and Depp.”
I tread carefully, knowing only that the story stems from The String of Pearls, a penny dreadful from the Victorian era. Very light research reveals that the story has been evolving since first appearing in serialized form as The String of Pearls (1846-1847), containing the usual gore you’d expect from such tales, and involving Sweeney Todd, a barber and serial murderer who slit the throats of men wanting shaves, but not ones quite that close. Subsequent writers have expanded and changed the story until Christopher Bond embellished upon Sweeney’s personal background for his stage play (1973), how he’s actually Benjamin Barker coming back to London after having been transported to Botany Bay for trumped-up crimes. The wicked Judge Turpin (Edmund Lyndeck) had raped Barker/Todd’s wife before shipping him off to Australia. Worse, the judge has been raising Todd’s daughter, Johanna, grooming her to become his bride. And then, finally, Sondheim. However, we have something beyond penny dreadful, beyond splatter-drama fit for the Grand Guignol, and beyond musical theater. We have also, I argue, a revenge tragedy.
I’ll illustrate how I’ve reached this conclusion by adapting methodology from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Vol. 5 (DSM-5). Psychiatric practitioners diagnose patients based on how many criteria an individual meets for any given condition. For example, a diagnosis of (fill in mental disorder) might require that someone exhibits five out of nine criteria listed. Let’s see how Sweeney does with criteria defining revenge tragedies that I lifted from the Internet. WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD:
Spectacle for the Sake of Spectacle
Revenge tragedies virtually explode with gory content, and Sweeney is no exception. Sweeney Todd (George Hearn) slices the throats of his victims with much blood oozing to titillate the audience. Then he shoots their remains downstairs to Nellie Lovett (Angela Lansbury) who processes them into filling for her meat pies. Blood? Cannibalism? Spectacle for the sake of spectacle? Check.
Villains and Accomplices That Assist the Avenger are Killed
Sweeney’s ultimate goal is revenge against Judge Turpin for what he’s done to him, his young wife, and his daughter. His accomplice, Nellie Lovett, dies when Todd hurls her into the pie-baking oven. Her main motive throughout has been obtaining meat for her tasty pies. And in fact, she’s keeping secrets from Todd involving his wife’s true disposition. But despite her motives, she’s working with him, and she dies when Todd murders her after suffering a Greek-tragedy-level emotional shock. Check.
The Supernatural (Often in the Form of a Ghost who Urges the Protagonist to Seek Vengeance)
Memories haunt Todd, and definitely he’s plagued with obsession, but the narrative clearly doesn’t include ghosts or supernatural occurrences. No check.
A Play Within a Play, or a Dumb Show
With what to catch the conscience of anyone? No check.
Madness or Feigned Madness
Nellie Lovett’s got issues, Sweeney Todd’s got issues, and so does mostly everyone on stage. Check.
Benjamin Barker becomes Sweeney Todd so no one will recognize him while he plots his revenge. Check.
Violent murders, Including Decapitation and Dismemberment
They call him the demon barber for good reason. Check.
And all sung, since, you know, musical. Check.
A Machiavellian Figure
Nellie Lovett’s quite the manipulator, especially when keeping secrets while prodding Sweeney to provide the meat for her yummy pies. Her goals aren’t really political, however. She’s in it for the money but also because she enjoys Todd’s company. Tupac Shakur might have said about her, “Forgive me, [she’s] a rider, still [she’s] a simple [woman], all [she] want[s] is money, fuck the fame, [she’s] a simple [woman].” Check.
Cannibalism (Thyestean Banquets)
There’s a banquet scene of sorts during which Nellie makes her pies while her sidekick, Tobias Ragg, serves them to hungry punters who are dining alfresco at picnic tables. Those pies, though. Mm-mmm. Check.
A Fifth and Final Act Where Many Characters are Killed (Multiple Corpses on the
Viewers see quite the dogpile of corpses at the end. It’s not the fifth act per se, but indeed we’ve reached a big finale. Check.
Degeneration of a Once-Noble Protagonist
He wasn’t an aristocrat, but Benjamin Barker was a hardworking barber who reportedly loved his wife, doted on his daughter, and lived contentedly. Then Judge Turpin took all that away, releasing the demonic Sweeney Todd upon the world. Check.
In later Jacobean and Caroline Revenge Tragedies, the Protagonist is More often a Villain than a Hero (Though This is Subjective)
Dexter Morgan, the serial-killer from the novels by Jeff Lindsay, only preys upon the evil, so one could argue that he’s an antihero. Sweeney Todd, however, isn’t so picky. Check.
In Later Revenge Tragedies, There is Often More Than One Character Who Seeks Revenge
I’m stretching here, but Pirelli, Todd’s rival barber and a conman, does threaten to reveal Todd’s true identity for a cut of his profits, only to find himself bled out and ground for meat pies . . . no, I’ll not pursue that angle. No check.
The Avenger Is Killed
Tobias Ragg handles that for us. Check.
The result? Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street meets twelve out of fifteen criteria for defining revenge tragedies. We have a winner, and a cleverly devised one. I enjoyed Sweeney immensely and look forward to experiencing more of Sondheim’s oeuvre.